Four of the most noteworthy teams in the NBA each head into Wednesday's ESPN doubleheader with major questions to address before the end of 2011-12's first half. Our panel tackles all four, and then gives their take on an even more heated debate.
1. Fact or Fiction: Boston should begin its rebuild now.
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Fiction. Despite their sub-.500 record, I still believe the Celtics will make the playoffs and be a tough out in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With the Big Three and Rondo in tow, Boston has a puncher's chance. They're breaking up after this season, regardless, so why not give them the opportunity to prove themselves one last time?
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction. It's easy to say that the Celtics should rebuild, but what big move should they make? Boston would be better off making smaller moves, like adding some scoring and rebounding to a roster that's still elite defensively.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Faction. There hasn't been a season in the Big Three era that hasn't seen a midseason swoon. This year is different in that the light at the end of the tunnel gets dimmer and dimmer with each loss. Unfortunately, I doubt the Celtics can get the pieces necessary for a rebuild by breaking up the team.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction. Remember in 2009, when the Celtics were supposed to be too old to compete with LeBron James or Dwight Howard's team, but ended up a quarter away from winning a championship? The defense is still there, Pierce, Allen and KG can all still shoot, and the Celtics still have a puncher's chance with their current core. They should take one more shot with this bunch.
Arash Markazi, ESPN LA: Fact. Unless Boston's goal is to simply make it out of the first round, the rebuilding process must begin now. Truth be told, it should have started last season, when Boston could have gotten more in return for their aging stars. But there's no time to look back now with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce clocking in at a combined 105 years old. It's time to gut this team before it's completely too late to get something in return.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Thunder will finish with the NBA's best record.
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Fiction. The Heat or the Bulls will finish with the best record. The bottom-feeders of the East are so awful that Miami and Chicago will have their records inflated. Additionally, the Thunder likely will secure the top seed out West (and rest their starters), but the Eastern juggernauts will duke it out until the end.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction. It's absolutely fair to call them the favorites and it would be far from a surprise if they did. I just can't pick them against the field when Miami and Chicago have almost identical records.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Fact. The Thunder will be battling Miami for the best record. Their combination of youth, depth and versatility should carry them through the packed schedule, but the decisive aspect will be health. I'll give the edge to OKC.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction. The Thunder are playing great basketball, but both the Heat and the Bulls have a point margin nearly twice as high as Oklahoma City's, which suggests they'll end up with the better regular-season record. Besides, the Bulls will only get better now that Derrick Rose is back in the lineup, and Miami hasn't shown any signs of slowing down recently.
Arash Markazi, ESPN LA: Fiction. The Thunder will finish with the best record in the West and the second-best record in the league behind the Miami Heat. LeBron James and the Heat have hit a stride that we haven't seen since Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1990s. They might not be hungry enough to win every game like those Bulls teams but they are capable of blowing away their opponent every night.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers need to trade Pau Gasol.
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Fiction. Although the current damage between the two sides might be irreconcilable, the Lakers aren't going to find equal value for Gasol on the open market. If they do, it'll likely come in the form of a guard, which will drastically shift the dynamic of the Lakers' roster. Honestly, L.A. just needs better role players.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fiction. How did it work out the last time the Lakers made a panic trade involving a skilled big with hurt feelings? If the right trade comes along, fine, but the Lakers cannot afford to trade Gasol unless they receive a great player in return. For all the noise and nonsense surrounding Gasol and the Lakers this season, he's still a great player.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Fiction. There's no point in breaking up the Lakers' core unless it directly contributes to the acquisition of Dwight Howard. Otherwise, the Lakers won't be able to get anything to help them contend this season by losing Gasol, and I'm not sure Kobe Bryant could last through another rebuild.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fiction, but they need to figure out how to use him. Mike Brown seems to think that Gasol is a true 4 on offense, when in reality he's the best all-around offensive center in the league being forced to play out of position because of Andrew Bynum. The Lakers have some gaping holes (namely 3-point shooting and players who can get into the lane off the bounce), but selling Gasol at the nadir of his value isn't the way to fill them.
Arash Markazi, ESPN LA: Fiction. Do the Lakers want to trade Gasol for an All-Star point guard? Yes. Do they need to trade him for the sake of trading him? No. For all the talk about Gasol's state of mind, he's actually playing well. He's averaging 16.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game while trying to allow Andrew Bynum to play a larger role. Gasol is not the problem with the Lakers right now; a lack of a point guard, small forward and bench are the issues.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Mavericks are NBA Finals contenders.
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Fact. At this point, it appears four to five teams have a legitimate shot at winning the West. Although this season's Dallas squad is not as offensively potent as last year's, it's just as deep, better defensively and just as dangerous of a dark horse.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Fact. The Mavericks are somehow better defensively after losing Dwane Casey and Tyson Chandler. The offense isn't quite there yet, but at least Dirk Nowitzki is coming along. While I wouldn't pick Dallas to make it to the Finals, there's enough talent here if it peaks at the right time.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Fact. The Mavericks still have depth and Dirk Nowitzki, so they can't be counted out. They remind me a lot of the Celtics team that lost in the Finals a few years ago. They could easily hit their stride in the postseason.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Fact. The playoffs often come down to your defense and your best player -- the Mavericks have the best defensive efficiency mark in the Western Conference, and Dirk is coming off a postseason in which his team ran through Kobe's Lakers, Durant's Thunder, and LeBron and Dwyane's Heat. I wouldn't call the defending champs favorites, but I certainly wouldn't count them out.
Arash Markazi, ESPN LA: Fact. The Mavericks have all the pieces in place for another championship run and have proved they are still a dangerous team after a slow start to the season. Dallas has moved from out of the playoffs and up to the No. 3 seed in the West, and it's looking likely that the road to the Finals out West might still run through Dallas.
5. Who's the best player playing on ESPN on Wednesday?
Jovan Buha, ClipperBlog: Kevin Durant. He's posting a career-high PER, leading the best team in the West (and top-3 in the league) and improving in all facets of his game. Of the players playing Wednesday, only Kobe Bryant can claim he's near the same stratosphere as Durant, but it's not that close.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Kevin Durant. This isn't just because his scoring 51 points against Denver is so fresh in my mind. Durant hasn't the résumé of Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki, but he's out-producing them. With how he's rebounding, handling the ball and defending, it's a much easier call than it would have been this time last year. He's only 23 -- how lucky are we to see him grow up?
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: Jeremy ... just kidding. I'll give the nod to Durant for being the best player on the best team of the bunch.
John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: Durant. Kobe's more capable of dropping 50 (or 60) while being perfectly covered on any given night, but I give Durant a slight edge over both of them because he's younger, healthier and more consistent. Durant has a long way to go before he can match what Kobe's achieved in this league, but as of right now I think that Durant is the superior player.
Arash Markazi, ESPN LA: Kobe Bryant. Sure, Durant and Russell Westbrook are getting all the attention now, and Nowitzki took his game to the next level in the playoffs last year, but what Kobe is doing this season defies all logic. At 33 years old and in his 16th NBA season, he leads the league in scoring (29.0) and is on pace for perhaps his best statistical season since 2007. This might not equal more wins for the Lakers as a team, but it's fun to watch individually.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Arash Markazi is a columnist for ESPN Los Angeles. Jovan Buha, James Herbert, Brendan Jackson and John Krolik contribute to the TrueHoop Network.